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Syrians continue to suffer, as threat of military strike eases

13 September 2013


Diplomatic question: President Obama addresses his country from the White House on Tuesday evening. He spoke of the justification for intervention in Syria in Syria

Diplomatic question: President Obama addresses his country from the White House on Tuesday evening. He spoke of the justification for intervention i...

The prospect of a halt in the Obama administration's campaign to win domestic and international support for a military strike against Syria has eased global tension, but done nothing to alleviate the suffering of millions of Syrians. Mr Obama said on Monday that he was prepared to explore a Russian proposal that Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons be placed under international control.

if the threat of imminent military intervention continues to recede in the coming days, there will be a danger that the international community expresses relief, and turns its attention elsewhere, leaving the civil conflict in Syria to continue to kill, wound, and uproot hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Over recent days, many senior church figures and world leaders have been urging the US and other supporters of military action to take steps instead to bring peace to Syria. Pope Francis on Saturday led a day of prayers and vigils that were held all over the world, calling for an end to the bloodshed. The Pope urged world leaders to pull humanity out of a "spiral of sorrow and death". He said: "Violence and war lead only to death; they speak of death. Violence and war are the language of death."

A conference in the Jordanian capital, Amman, last week, attended by about 50 Christian leaders from around the Middle East, also heard calls for restraint, with expressions of fear over the effect that an attack would have on Christians in the region. "We stress that we reject foreign interference in Syria," the Patriarch of Antioch for the Syrian Catholic Church, Ignatius Joseph III Younan, said in a statement read before the conference.

The leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt, Pope Tawadros II, was unable to attend because of the crisis in his own country. But, in a statement, he said that Christians "don't accept any intervention by foreign powers . . . to protect minorities. It is basically a pretext . . . to advance their countries' interest in the Middle East."

The Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, the Rt Revd Munib Younan, was among several speakers who warned that another Western military intervention in the region would increase anti-Christian sentiments, and lead more people to leave. "Do we run under the skirts of a warlord?" he asked. "Are we weak and persecuted, and thus in a perpetual need of other Christians to rescue us?" he asked. "No, we don't need that. We seek justice, equality, dignity."

The fate of Christians in Syria is already becoming more perilous by the day. The inhabitants of the small town of Maaloula, north of Damascus, were forced to flee their homes on Monday, when it was captured by Islamist rebel forces. Maaloula, a UNESCO heritage site, is one of the few towns where people speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.

It is no surprise that the exodus of Christians from Syria is continuing. Nevertheless, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch, Gregory III Laham, has urged Christian families to stay. "I beg you to remain here," he told a rally of the faithful in Damascus on Sunday. "We're staying. If you leave, we leave. So we beg you, stop coming to our priests asking for a visa. If you leave, who will remain? Only our brethren the Muslims."

Whether they remain, or flee to neighbouring countries for safety, millions of Syrians now require help to survive. Among the many NGOs seeking to ease the burden of Syrian refugees is the Anglican charity Us. (formerly USPG). It has launched two appeals to encourage Anglicans and other churchgoers in Britain and Ireland to reach out to Syrian refugees. The Us. campaign is being run in collaboration with Embrace the Middle East (formerly Biblelands), and will support an ecumenical network of churches reaching out to Syria's two million refugees with food and other essentials (www.weareus.org.uk/latestupdates/syria/).

The director of Global Networking for Us., the Revd Canon Edgar Ruddock, said: "While we have a responsibility to wrestle with the very deep issues of history, culture, religion, and politics that are the reality of the Middle East today, we have an even stronger moral commitment to stand alongside all who are displaced, and all who are powerless in the face of terrible suffering and hurt."

The Christian children's charity Global Care says that it has so far raised almost £50,000 to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Global Care's partners there are providing monthly food parcels for families living in tents and makeshift shelters after fleeing the fighting in Syria. "Most of the families have nothing but the clothes on their backs," Global Care says, "and all have suffered terrible losses".

When Global Care launched its appeal in March, there were 300,000 Syrian refugees living in dire conditions in Lebanon. Today, there are more than 720,000 registered there, and thousands more unregistered. A further estimated 3000 arrive each day.


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